No Powerless Christians — Ephesians 1:15-23

The late, great Jimi Hendrix said it well. “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, then the world will know peace.” Today that sounds like just another hippy-dippy sixties bumper sticker slogan. In our time the love of power is the order of the day. The pursuit of power overwhelms all other projects.

Power is a major topic in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. Last week I introduced the overall theme of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. God pulls it all together in Jesus. In worship God pulls us to the center of all life, Jesus, our Lord and Savior. God does that by sending us the power of the Holy Spirit of Jesus. Today let’s talk about how that power works in our Christian journey.

Love of power was a way of life in ancient Ephesus. In Paul’s time, Ephesus was second only to Rome as a seat of imperial power. Ephesus was home to a rich and entitled elite who controlled the government, manipulated the markets, and ran the religious life of the city. When it came to power, the Ephesian Christians were on the outside looking in.

Photo by Rahul on Pexels.com

Many of us feel like little people in big systems. It’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless when all the power rests in the hands of others. Carried along by impersonal politics, mindless markets, faceless social forces—we know powerless.

So it’s jarring to hear Paul’s prayer today. “I pray that…you may know,” Paul writes, “what is the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power for us who believe, according to the working of [God’s] great power.” Paul is so intent to make his point that he uses three different Greek terms for power in the space of fourteen words. There are no powerless Christians.

Paul longs that the Ephesians will know that this power is available to them for their daily use. The Holy Spirit longs for us to know this as well. There are no powerless Christians.

Paul draws it all together in verses twenty through twenty-three. Let’s take those verses step by step.

Step One: All Christian power is Resurrection Power. That’s where Paul begins, and where we must always begin. “God put this power to work in Christ,” Paul tells us, “when [God] raised [the Messiah] from the dead…” God’s love looks like a cross. And God’s power looks like resurrection.

Step Two: Jesus is now the rightful Ruler of all things in heaven and on earth. God “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. Jesus the Messiah is Lord of heaven and earth, right now.

Step Three: Jesus exercises that rule in part through the Church. God “has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” The Spirit empowers us for loving service in Jesus’ name.

There are no powerless Christians.

How is God working powerfully among us here at Emanuel Lutheran Church? We are launching our Christian childcare center. We are creating a Christian retreat and meditation center. We have raised $14,000 to send folks to the youth gatherings. We are studying, identifying and using our spiritual gifts for mission and service. We are seeking to support a mental health ministry. We are supporting Angel Tree ministry and camps. We are working on a digital church sign. We are offering Lutheran Lake day camp. We have taken an offering today to support our neighborhood with a concrete expression of love.

ELCA synods have elected not one but two African American women as synod bishops. Make no mistake. They were elected because they are the most competent leaders and best pastors in their respective synods. In the past, that has often not been enough. Now the Spirit is on the move.

This is worth cheers and hallelujahs. This runs against cultural currents flowing in the opposite direction. This is the power of the Spirit at work among us to put all the powers of sin, death and the devil under the feet of Jesus the Messiah. This is Jesus, the strong man, binding Satan and plundering his household. This is real power.

You exercise the Spirit’s power in your lives as well. You use political power to make the world more loving and just. You bring order and compassion to our community and county. You care for the sick and injured, the lost and lonely. You resist the fear, hatred and violence which are so much of our current culture. You welcome all people here with no exceptions or conditions.

There are no powerless Christians. With Paul I pray that “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints…” This is the hope to which God has called us—to make the power of love conquer the love of power. This is the work of the Holy Spirit among us and in us and through us. This is how God is pulling it all together in Jesus.

The world cannot see this power among us. The world is blinded by the love of power. That’s why it takes the vision of an enlightened heart. That’s why this is about the hope to which God has called us.

There are no powerless Christians. Of course, there is no power unless you plug in. The Spirit equips us to see where the power is. It is in God’s Word of law and gospel. It is in our worship. It is in our welcoming and loving community. Next time we will hear more about God’s gracious gift that makes it all work among us and in us and through us. Let’s pray…

Pastor Lowell Hennigs

Emanuel Lutheran Church

Council Bluffs, Iowa

Letters to Phil, #11 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

You noted in your last letter that it’s easy for me to advocate big changes for others. After all, as you observe, those changes don’t const me anything. That’s a fair critique. I’m not in the position to surrender most of my wealth and that of my children in order to free currently enslaved persons. I live a privileged existence that demands very little sacrifice on my part. As a result, I know that my relationship with the Lord Jesus is in constant danger of collapse under the weight of my personal hypocrisy.

You see, Phil, I know that I must repent of the sins of whiteness and to make efforts to repair the damage that white supremacy has done for centuries and continues to do in the present. I know that because I have listened to and continue to listen to the real testimony of history behind the mythology so often taught in our white schools and white homes.

That’s all pretty academic and abstract, I know. Maybe an example from your time will help. Perhaps you have seen the expensive carved relief set in cameo and produced for the emperor and other high-ranking folks in your time. We have an example of such a cameo in one of our museums. We call it the Gemma Augustea. As you know, this setting is an affirmation of and advertisement for every bit of self-serving, self-justifying, and self-congratulating imperial mythology of your time.

The upper register depicts Caesar Augustus as the benevolent savior of the whole inhabited world. Both the Earth and the Sea pay tribute to Caesar and support his reign. The Roman eagle declares that the empire is favored by Jupiter, the king of all the gods. Next to Caesar is the goddess, Roma, always ready for war with both spear and sword. She stands atop the booty of conquest. Roma may be modelled after Livia, the wife of Augustus. The goddess, Nike – Victory – is driving a chariot from one successful conquest to the next.

You know better than I that this gem bears the imperial propaganda in full. Rome, in the person of Caesar, is invincible. Yet, Caesar dispenses peace and abundance – what the pagans call “salvation”! Smart people get with the program and reap the benefits of enthusiastic collaboration. The alternative is poverty, punishment, and persecution. It’s an easy decision for most people.

The lower register of the gem portrays, literally, the underside of the imperial system. The defeated figures are part of the group erecting a troparion, a monument to imperial victory made from the trophies of conquest. German and Celtic prisoners of war – destined soon to be enslaved – are seated on the ground as human booty. They are about to be tied to the base of the troparion, perhaps to be mocked and tortured. The troparion is, in fact, a cross that will display some of the loot taken from the defeated. It also resembled the lynching trees that populate a large swath of our own perverse history.

Mars, the god of war, presides over the grisly celebration. Figures representing the sun, moon, and stars look on in admiration. Mercury drags a female captive into the scene, perhaps to be raped and then enslaved.

The glory of Rome in the upper register is literally built upon the foundations of war and conquest, rape and pillage, torture and terror in the lower register. This is the mythology of the Empire. It’s no wonder some Christians resisted that mythology and labelled it as idolatry.

Yet, as you pointed out in your last letter, resisting the Imperial system was no simple matter. Just as slavery was as ubiquitous to you as electricity is to us, so that imperial mythology was as all-encompassing to you as the air we breathe. Resisting the air produces suffocation rather than salvation, eh?

I live in my own version of an imperial system. The goddess we worship, however, is not Roma. Rather, it seems we worship a god named “Leukos.” We white, Western Europeans and Americans worship at the altar of whiteness. No, Phil, that’s not quite right. We worship at the altar of “Leukos Anotatos” – the altar of white supremacy.

If we were to produce our own “Gemma” to carry this idolatrous mythology, a white man would certainly be at the center of the upper panel. Perhaps the image would be that of Robert E. Lee, the leading general in our war of rebellion, a war intended to preserve the system of chattel slavery and to extend it throughout our nation. Lee would sit atop a rearing horse, named Traveler, perhaps against a field of cotton. Behind him would be a virtuous white matron, protected from the hordes of invading black barbarians who would be defeated, dismembered, and destroyed.

The lower panel might display enslaved men, cowering under the lash of the overseer and begging forgiveness for their ingratitude. Enslaved women would be dragged off to be raped in order to produce the next generation of chattel. Some of those children might be depicted as playing happily with their soon-to-be enslavers. Abraham Lincoln might be shown prostrate in defeat on the portico of a plantation house.

Well, perhaps you get the idea.

Our idolatrous mythology is built of layer upon layer of falsehood. There is the Doctrine of Discovery, a “Christian” proposal that the lands of the West were empty and in need of civilizing discovery and development. The indigenous inhabitants of the land were not owners but merely residents. Therefore, they could be controlled, removed, and erased from history by any means necessary.

The complementary myth, another “Christian” proposal, was Manifest Destiny. This was the idea that white Christian domination was ordained by God to stretch from sea to shining sea on the North American continent.

We worship the myth of American exceptionalism – that our country is peculiarly blessed by God and serves as a shining city on a hill for all the world to see. Anything bad that happens here, therefore, is an anomaly that can be quickly corrected – a bug, as we would say these days, and not a feature of the system. America is the repository of all that is beautiful, true, and good, this myth asserts. Every white American politician embraces this idea without question – if they want to get re-elected.

This American exceptionalism is, of course, white American exceptionalism. In the life of the individual white person, this gets expressed as the myth of white innocence. On the one hand, we have “it’s not my fault and therefore not my problem” school of thought. I didn’t own slaves. My family didn’t get to this country until the 1880’s – after the Civil War. I don’t discriminate in business or religion. I don’t have a racist bone in my body. I worked hard for what I have. I’m sorry that history sucks for Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian people. I feel terrible for them, but it’s not my fault. Why can’t we just move along?

This mythology ignores centuries of theft that give me my advantages and privileges. It ignores the ongoing systems that favor white men above all other people in this society. It ignores the continuing disparities in educational, health, transportation, and economic outcomes. This mythology assumes that we exist only as isolated individuals who can choose to be responsible for one another or not.

That, by itself, should rule this mythology out of bounds for American Christians. But it does not.

All of this willful blindness created the convenient illusion of a “post-racial” society. Since a few Black, Brown, and Asian people achieved some exceptional measure of economic and political power, we white people could delude ourselves into thinking that the “race problem” was solved. We began, as a result, to remove the legal, political, cultural, and economic backstops that had produced the progress in the first place.

This was like saying that since we had a haircut, we no longer needed a barber. After all, our hair was short enough. I know, nonsense! Right? But there it is.

Through it all, the idolatry of white supremacy has been and is being sustained. These days, many of our leaders want us to avoid learning any real history that might give us an accurate picture of ourselves and our past. Just teach the mythology, they say. All that history stuff just makes us white people feel bad.

That’s like saying that the solution to being overweight is to avoid scales and mirrors. Self-delusion cannot result in self-improvement.

Why do we white people do it? You know the answer, Phil We do it because honesty is expensive and painful. The truth is rarely simply. History is written by the perpetrators. Repentance and repair feel like dying – at least if you’re white in our culture. I imagine you’ve had an analogous response in dealing with Onesimus and Paul. Dying to self is indeed as bad as it sounds.

But, as we both know, the alternative is worse. Mythology produces the day of the living dead for the few of us who are privileged. As an oppressor, I become subhuman. And it produces a real nightmare of suffering and death for those on the lower register of our cultural Gemma. I can’t follow Jesus and live the mythology at the same time. So, it will cost me, and, I imagine, you.

I look forward to your next letter.

Yours in Christ,

Low

Letters to Phil #10 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

You are quite right when you protest that I am using standards of judgment in your case that convict me and my time with equal certainty. You point out that you were in the first generation of Christians do deal with the revolution in social relationships called forth by the Good News of Jesus. You note that Christians in my time have the benefit and burden of two millennia and still have worked out very little.

If anything, Phil, we western, post-Enlightenment Christians have made many of the dimensions and dynamics of human enslavement far worse than they were in your time. We can agree, I think, that enslavement was both pervasive and systemic in your culture, as it has been in mind. “Rome was a slaveholding empire,” Jennifer Glancy writes, “No one who lived in the empire could avoid participating in its slave-dependent economy.”[i]

I assume that you agree with this description. As a result, the imperial enslavement system must have been regarded as both normal and necessary. “Slavery was so basic a structure in the ancient world,” Glancy writes, “that challenging it might have seemed as odd as asking why water was wet or ice cold.”[ii]

Photo by William Fortunato on Pexels.com

Enslavement in the imperial system “was how things got done,” Tom Wright notes. “It was the electricity of the ancient world; try imagining,” Wright continues, “your home or your town without the ability to plug things in and switch them on, and you will realize how unthinkable it was to them that there should be no slaves.”[iii]

I know the force of Wright’s illustration may be lost on you, but I’m sure you get the gist of his point. Would you agree that human enslavement was regarded as a normal and necessary feature undergirding the Roman imperial system? That’s certainly how it appears from my vantage point.

I rehearse what you know far better than I to set up my next acknowledgment. Chattel slavery was regarded as normal and necessary in the American system as well. The economic necessity built into the system can be demonstrated with hard numbers. On the eve of our American Civil War, “the nearly four million enslaved people were by far the country’s most valuable economic asset,” writes Clint Smith, “valued at approximately $3.5 billion, they were worth more than all of the country’s manufacturing and railroads combined.”[iv]

So, the number of enslaved people in our country in 1860 was comparable to half the population of the Roman Empire in your era. We know that enslaved people made up nearly half the population of Italy in your time, but the percentage of the population in such bondage was lower in most of the provinces. Approximately one in eight people in the United States was enslaved in 1860. And the economic impact of the products of enslave labor was felt in every corner of the American economy, not just in the south.

Unlike you, Phil, I live with an historical memory that is designed to protect the moral innocence and purity of “white” people. We Northern Americans are desperate to believe that we and our forebears are on “the right side of history” (whatever that means). It was, we tell ourselves, those wicked Confederates who were the enslavers and rebels. My ancestors didn’t own slaves, we tell ourselves. Therefore, I am not guilty and should not be “unjustly” accused of complicity in the horrors perpetrated by those on “the wrong side of history” (whatever that means). And I certainly should be expected to pay any costs associated with setting that history right.

If only it were that simple. As with the Roman empire, our American economy was founded and sustained on the backs and the graves of enslaved people. In our case, they were all Black. The economic dependence on the wealth wrapped up in enslaved Black bodies was so entrenched that former “slave states” have, to this day, not recovered from the economic shock that the end of enslavement produced. Those states remain the most impoverished states in our nation.

Of course, that economic reality is also rooted in efforts to sustain the enslavement system long after it was formally outlawed in this country. Wealthy, white landowners created an economic system that maintain their dependence on and control of low-cost Black labor. That system established a share-cropping arrangement which was often enslavement under the cover of law.

And, there was – and is – our system of incarceration which (under the Thirteenth Amendment to our federal constitution) allows enslavement to be applied to those who have been convicted and sentenced by our judicial system. It may not surprise you to learn that the great majority of those caught up in this system of incarceration are Black men.

My point, Phil, is that we Americans spent a couple of centuries creating a political, economic, and cultural system that was utterly dependent on the coerced and uncompensated labor of enslaved Black people. When that system was firmly in place, it was then perceived and described as the normal and necessary order of things. Disrupting that system meant rupturing the social fabric that had been stitched firmly together with threads made of Black skin.

It may be that Paul was unwilling to advocate such a social disruption in the Roman imperial system. Or, it may be that he calculated that the nascent Christian community was incapable of fomenting and then surviving such a cultural revolution. It may be that he finally thought it wasn’t worth the bother in light of Jesus’ hoped-for imminent return. What do you think led Paul to refrain from attacking this issue?

It may be that you, Phil, feared the costs of such an upheaval in your own household and community. I can tell you that in our time a lot of well-meaning people are in favor of significant change until they become aware of the social and personal price tag of such change. Then, it seems, all bets are off. Perhaps you granted manumission to Onesimus. But it’s clear that Christians didn’t bring about the abolition of enslavement in the Roman system. If anything, we Christians enhanced and encouraged it.

In the American system, there is another element which continues to be regarded (at least covertly) as both normal and necessary. That element is white supremacy. At its core, the American system asserts the supremacy of wealthy, white, male, landowning citizens above all. Others are to be in the service of that privileged, powerful, and propertied class.

White supremacy requires racism – the assertion and belief that human worth and dignity are tied directly to skin tone. Racism produces “race” – the construction of inferior Others who are identified and evaluation solely on the basis of skin tone. Race makes possible chattel slavery, segregation, and the hierarchical system that still organizes American society today.

Phil, I know you dealt with your own artificial hierarchies of gender, class, ethnic origin, and religion. So, I suspect you have some understanding of what I have described. It is clear that you earlier Christians tackled the real divisions in your communities. It’s also clear that you made some real progress in welcoming Gentiles into those communities of faith. That was Paul’s real target, and he focused on that target with an archer’s intensity.

In fact, it is that history of overcoming the Jew/Gentile boundary that continues to give some of us later Christians hope, inspiration, and guidance. Despite our sorry history in the past two millennia, we have been some artificial human boundaries assaulted. And in some limited cases, those boundaries do fall.

Women have been (re)admitted to formal church leadership – something your generation embraced but which was retracted in the following generations. Language, gender orientation and identity, class – all these have been dismantled at some times and in some measure. After all, we know that God shows no partiality, even though we do.

Yet, as many of our writers note, for every step forward in the progress toward authentic human community, there is often an equal and opposite step back into oppression and exploitation. Blessed Paul reminded us that our battle really is against the principalities and powers that seek to take life and spread darkness. Thus, we have not “arrived” in the New Creation now any more than you did.

Thanks for indulging me in this wandering wondering, Phil. I look forward to your next note.

Yours in Christ,

Low


[i] Glancy, Slavery as Moral Problem, Kindle Location 15.

[ii] Ibid, Kindle Location 516.

[iii] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, page 32.

[iv] Clint Smith, The Word is Passed, Kindle Location 3116.

Letters to Phil #9 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

Yes, Paul does appear to speak in opaque riddles at times, even in the very same letter! Like you, I have puzzled over and been frustrated by the ambiguities and contradictions in the first letter to the Church at Corinth. “For indeed in one Spirit were all were baptized into one body,” Paul writes, “whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free persons, and we are all were made to drink one Spirit.”[i]

That does indeed seem like Paul is walking back his bold assertion to the Galatian Christians – that in our baptism there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, but all are one in Christ Jesus.[ii] One of our best historians on the topic, Jennifer Glancy, says, “Unlike Galatians, 1 Corinthians does not suggest that divisions between slave and free are obsolete among the baptized. Rather,” she writes, “1 Corinthians proclaims that both slave and free are incorporated into the body of Christ.”[iii]

Photo by Belle Co on Pexels.com

If you (and Glancy) read Paul correctly, then he is not telling the enslaved persons in Corinth – or Galatia – that baptism into Christ translates into the abolition of the slaveholder/enslaved relationship between Christians. In your perspective, if I may presume to speak for you, Paul’s counsel to escape enslavement if the chance presented itself could only apply in situations where the slaveholder was a pagan, and the enslaved person was a Christian. Is that how it seems to you?

Otherwise, you seem to argue, Paul counsels Christians to remain in their current life situations. Christian slaveholders are not obliged to manumit their Christian slaves. Christian slaves should not seek to escape from their Christian slaveholders. Single and married people should not seek to change their situations either, as Paul discusses in the first Corinthian letter. Do I have your position right?

From our perspective, it seems that Paul is assuming that Jesus will return in rather short order. So why bother to make major personal, communal, and social changes? Paul may have viewed all that as, in our idiom, a waste of good red tape. To his credit, Paul doesn’t believe for a minute that these relationships will persist into the New Creation. To his detriment, Paul seems to argue that, as a result, it’s not really worth the bother to make significant changes in those relationships now.

I understand you to say (and to believe that Paul says) that our oneness in the body of Christ transcends our mundane human divisions and distinctions. As a result, and in the shadow of the New Creation, those divisions and distinctions no longer matter. It’s not necessary, you seem to argue, to change our social arrangements, since they are temporary and only of this world. I’m not persuaded by that argument, from Paul or from you.

Yes, Phil, I know that Paul told the Philippian church that our citizenship is in heaven.[iv] But I’m just not convinced that this is license to ratify current earthly relationships just as they are. I’m not convinced especially in cases, like enslavement, where the relationships are so contradictory to Paul’s own standards of bearing one another’s burdens for the sake of Christ.[v]

Glancy pushes the issue by examining how it might work out in a Christian household – one where the slaveholder family and the household slaves are all now Christians and members of the same house church. Prior to conversion, the slaveholders could have all sorts of access to the bodies of the enslaved persons without the “permission” of the enslaved persons and with no consequences, either legal or spiritual. Her questions are twofold. Did Paul believe conversion changed that relational equation, and if so, how did that work out in practice?

When Onesimus returned to your household as a baptized member of the body of Christ, did that change your decisions about whether to use a whip on him? Did that change your decisions about whether to discipline him with branding or a slave collar or a tattoo? Did that impact your decisions about whether or not to sell him off as more trouble than he was worth? I don’t mean to be impertinent. These are real questions in my mind.

Paul asks you to regard Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but rather more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me [Paul] but how much more to you – both in the flesh and in the Lord.”[vi] It seems to me that in that sentence Paul moves “from preaching to meddling” (as we might put it in our vernacular). It’s that last phrase – “both in the flesh and in the Lord” – that I suspect caused you great consternation.

It’s one thing to regard all this change in status as “spiritual,” that is, “in the Lord” and not really impacting mundane matters. But what about “in the flesh.” I suppose Paul could be arguing that in baptism, you and Onesimus had become members of one “family,” rather than merely members of the same “household.”

I understand that “family” and “household” are pretty much synonyms for you and don’t carry the same weight the ideas do for me and my time. I wonder if it might be more accurate to suggest that Paul expected you to treat Onesimus as “kinfolk,” in the same way that you would treat Lady Apphia and Master Archippus. That would be a revolutionary change and would be asking a great deal of you and your biological kin. Perhaps it’s no wonder that Paul treads so lightly in his request (command) to you.

Glancy argues that “Paul never stated that he saw slaveholding as incompatible with the gospel. He believed,” she continues, “that within the church community, divisions between slave and free should be immaterial. We may nonetheless infer,” she concludes, “that Paul was insensitive to the actual impact of slavery within the community of believers”[vii] That may have been the case as Paul was writing his first letter to the church at Corinth. I’m not sure it was his position at the end of his mission, when he was writing his letter to you.

It seems that Paul’s certainty of the nearness of our Lord’s return faded with each passing year of his mission. In the Thessalonian letters, that return seemed poised to occur at any moment. The Corinthian letters seem to portray a sense that the return was somewhat delayed but still relatively imminent. The letters to the churches at Rome and Philippi have a quite different flavor when it comes to this certainty of the nearness of our Lord’s return. These letters show a much greater concern for how the Good News of Jesus Christ impacts our relationships and reality in the here and now – our life “both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

I belabor this point because it matters much more in my time than it does in yours. We have no reason to believe that our Lord’s return is imminent. Nor are we excused from the responsibility and opportunity to begin living the reality of that return in our here and now. Yet, we white Christians spend inordinate amounts of energy trying to maintain Paul’s early view that changing mundane matters is just a waste of good red tape.

Cornel West, one of our contemporary sages, has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Here’s what we know from our horrible history of enslavement, oppression, segregation, and genocide on this continent. When we try to separate life in the flesh from life in the Lord, we lose our capacity to love in public. And when we fail to love in public, we are certain to fail to love in private as well.

This separation of life in the flesh from life in the Lord (which Paul seeks to overcome in your household, I think), leads us to deform our humanity and our faith, deceive ourselves, and deny the humanity of those we enslave, oppress, segregate, and erase from the pages of history. Paul’s ambiguous and overly careful words about enslavement have bequeathed to us what another of our great contemporary writers, Willie James Jennings, has called a “diseased Christian imagination.”

We imagine that, somehow, we can deny the physical humanity of our sisters and brothers while embracing their baptismal identity in Christ. That diseased imagination has created historical trauma for the heirs of the enslaved as victims and for us heirs of the slaveholders as perpetrators. I can tell you that a Stoic denial of the importance of the here and now is no antidote to that diseased imagination. Nor is the western Christian dualism which pretends that our earthly actions have no cosmic consequences.

I don’t know for sure how you have worked this out. I can tell you that two millennia later, we’re not doing very well. The history of our lives together in the flesh, long buried under the detritus of white supremacy, is rising to the surface, and demanding to be heard. Some of us, me included, find this to be good, if painful, news. But many more of us are exerting every legal, political, economic, social, and violent option to avoid the truth that could set us (all) free.

Nowhere is that more obvious and militant than in our Christian churches. Many of us would rather commit institutional suicide than to hear inconvenient truths about white supremacy. I wonder how that sort of conversation went in your time?

Yours in Christ,

Low


[i] 1 Corinthians 12:13, my translation

[ii] Cf. Galatians 3:28

[iii] Slavery as a Moral Problem in the Early Church and Today, Kindle Location 339f.

[iv] Philippians 3:20.

[v] Galatians 6:5

[vi] Philemon 16, my translation

[vii] Slavery as a Moral Problem in the Early Church and Today, Kindle Location 447.

Letters to Phil #8 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

I was struck by your thoughts regarding Paul’s “unwanted” interference in your household affairs. Things were just fine, you suggested, as long as baptism was offered only to free Roman citizens and to freed persons (with the prior permission of their patrons, also known as their former slaveholders). It was, as you noted, when Paul took it upon himself to baptize Onesimus that things, in your estimation, “began going downhill in a hurry.”

“And then,” you wrote. Well, to be accurate, it was, “AND THEN!” And then, Paul sent Onesimus back (or did Onesimus volunteer – more on that perhaps later), letter in hand, with the request that you would regard Onesimus “no longer as a slave but rather more than a slave, a beloved brother…”

Photo by Transformation Films on Pexels.com

It must have compounded the insult when Paul instructed Onesimus to read the letter aloud to your house church rather than reserving that honor for you as the paterfamilias. I’m not surprised that you grabbed the scroll out of Onesimus’ hands and read it aloud a second time to make sure Onesimus wasn’t fabricating the whole thing. After all, everyone knows that “slaves always lie.”

Of course, Onesimus wasn’t lying.

It’s hard for me to keep from judging your situation based on my own values and assumptions, but I’ll do my best to discipline myself in that regard. That being said, what did you expect? Given your own experience of conversion and new life when you heard the Good News, did you believe it wouldn’t have the same impact on others – even on enslaved persons?

I know that many of your peers do not believe that enslaved persons even have souls that could be reached by the Gospel. I understand that the consensus view among them is that the enslaved are little more than cattle with two feet or tools covered with skin. We don’t expect cattle or carts to respond to the proclamation of the Gospel.

But, Phil, did you (do you?) see enslaved persons in the same way as your peers? More to the point, did you see enslaved persons in the same way after your own conversion and baptism into Christ?

I am reminded of an image from your own cultural setting. One of our theologians, Mark Allan Powell, reports on the baptisms of the Gauls a few centuries downstream from your own time. He notes that the story may be an idle tale, but it makes the point I want to raise.

Hard as it may be for you to imagine, the Empire will become “Christian.” It will also extend into central and western Europe (perhaps that is easier to imagine). The Gauls will become grudging citizens of the Empire and conditional converts to the Christian faith.

“As the story goes,” Powell writes, “when a converted warrior was baptized, he would hold one arm high in the air as the missionary dunked him under the water.” The one arm remained dry. Perhaps you can see where I’m heading with this image.

That arm was the warrior’s sword arm. Duly christened, the warriors would proclaim exemption for the “unbaptized arm” and ride off to commit murder and mayhem in the name of the Emperor.

Phil, did you withhold your whip hand from the baptismal waters so you could continue to enslave those who belonged to your household? I am being flippant and perhaps unnecessarily rude at this point. But I think it’s a serious question for all of us baptized Jesus followers regardless of the century.

Powell uses the story to assert that we modern Christians often act as if our wallets and purses have been spared the transformative dunking (he is, after all, writing about the Christian’s relationship to money). But we American Christians have behaved for centuries as if our immersion into Christ is limited to our “inner persons” and has no impact on our external practices.

Western Christians were (and are) tied up in theological and moral knots when it comes to evangelizing the people we concurrently abuse, exploit, and oppress. Some Christians take the missionary imperative of the Gospel at face value and sow the seed of the Good News indiscriminately (if you’ll pardon the pun). The result, not surprisingly, is that the seed of Life takes root in many hearts and begins to grow.

Perhaps that happened in your case. I’m not clear if you heard Paul preaching in Colossae or Ephesus. Perhaps you invited him to your home for further conversation. He seems familiar with your household and comfortable there. It’s clear that you exposed your family members to the life-changing Word of the Spirit in one way or another, and that Word did its work. That’s obvious in the conversion and faith of Lady Apphia and Master Archippus (please greet them for me).

I can only surmise that Onesimus overheard you, or Paul, or both, speaking about Jesus. Perhaps you assumed that he didn’t hear you. Perhaps it didn’t occur to you that he might listen in and be affected by what he heard. Or perhaps it simply didn’t occur to you that he and other enslaved persons were in the room. They might have been as invisible in that moment as the furniture or the mosaics on the floor.

In any event, it appears that Onesimus (and perhaps others) did hear something that moved him to action. I’d be very glad to hear just what did happen that brought him to Paul in Ephesus. But that’s for another letter, I hope.

We Christians have wanted to have it both ways when it comes to the Gospel and enslaved persons. In his letter, Paul certainly treats you with honor, deference, and respect as the master of the house. However, I wonder if the purpose of his letter to you was really to upend and dismantle the structures of the household and put in place a new system of relationships in Christ. Interference in the affairs of your household, indeed.

The British and American slave system understood the problem all too well.  In the mid-1600’s some enslaved persons were converted to the Christian faith and were baptized.  In these years before the separation of church and state, these enslaved persons asserted that their baptisms rendered their enslavement illegal.  They petitioned the British crown for their freedom.  Laws were enacted to render such petitions invalid.  Here is an excerpt of such a law from the Commonwealth of Virginia, decreed by King Charles II (apologies for the odd spellings).

“WHEREAS some doubts have risen whether children that are enslaved persons by birth, and by the charity and piety of their owners made pertakers of the blessed sacrament of baptisme, should by vertue of their baptisme be made ffree; It is enacted and declared by this grand assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedome; that diverse masters, ffreed from this doubt, may more carefully endeavour the propagation of christianity by permitting children, though enslaved persons, or those of growth if capable to be admitted to that sacrament.”

The line of note is, “The conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedome…”  I wonder how Paul would have assessed such language. In our time, we don’t hold our sword, or whip, arms out of the waters of baptism. Instead, we have limited the power of the baptism to a purely “internal” reality that has no impact on external relationships and structures of power.

That disfigured and demented understanding of the power and impact of baptism has perverted the Christian witness on our continent for five hundred years. In truth, it’s not that much different now. We don’t regard baptisms of Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, Middle Eastern, and other people as limited to their interior souls. Instead, we now make our sacraments and our conversions purely individual. We focus on a “personal” relationship with Jesus, so we don’t have to deal with the “public” side of that relationship.

Our baptismal fonts and our communion tables are the most racially segregated sites in North America. It seems to us at this distance, that the first reading of Paul’s letter to you was likely part of your community eucharist. Guess who’s coming to dinner, indeed!  Common table fellowship was and is critical to the unity and identity of Jesus followers. 

Was Onesimus welcomed to that meal as a brother in Christ? I can only imagine the chaos that might ensue in some of our congregations if a similar thing took place today. And yet, we know the indictment leveled against Jesus in the gospels.  “This man welcomes sinners,” we read in Luke’s account, “and eats with them.”  Welcome and table fellowship are inextricably linked in the life of the church. 

Was it possible for you to acknowledge Onesimus as a brother in Christ and also to keep him from the Lord’s Supper in the church that met at your house? If enslaved persons were viewed as “cattle on two feet,” why would anyone bother to baptize such creatures, much less to admit them to the Lord’s table?

That was probably overly blunt. I apologize. And I hasten to add that the same question applies to white (supremacist – and that’s all of us white Christians) congregations in America at this date. So, the question is equally as blunt to me as it is to you.

I look forward to hearing from you again.

Yours in Christ,

Low

Letters to Phil, #7 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

I’m sorry that I have delayed in responding to your most recent letter. But, in fact, I needed to take some time to consider carefully what you wrote and to reflect on my reply.

“Slaveholding, after all,” you wrote, “is not inconsistent with following Jesus as Messiah and Lord.” I must say, Phil, that I didn’t see that one coming. After your indignant protests about your letter being used by other Christians to justify and support the American slaveholding system, I assumed that I understood your position. It is now clear that I was mistaken in that assumption.

I appreciate your clarification of the initial matter. If I understand you correctly, your objection was not so much how your letter was used to justify the institution and practices of slaveholding. Rather, your objection related to the fact of being “used” at all. Am I correct in that description?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

I believe you found the whole idea to be an affront to your nobility and honor as a free Roman man. You noted in your letter that “slaves are used as objects at the disposal of others. Free men are petitioned for favors, not employed as mere pawns in another’s game.” You object to being “used” for any purposes other than your own. Is that the gist of your complaint?

I hope we can return to this conversation about noble male honor and shame at a future time. Again, if I have misunderstood or misconstrued your views, I hope you will set me straight on the matter. But I want to focus on your assertion about slaveholding being “not inconsistent” with Jesus-following. I must admit that your offhand comment left me somewhat breathless.

You continued, “If Paul thought there was a conflict, why didn’t he tell Christians to free all their slaves and to oppose the whole Imperial slave system?” That, of course, is the question that has bothered theologians and commentators for the last two thousand years.

Paul’s cryptic and ambiguous language has kept us guessing, reading between the lines, formulating hypotheses, and writing both papers and policies. That is certainly true of Paul’s little letter to you. It’s job security for Biblical scholars. But Paul’s coyness has not led us on its own to clarity.

You agreed that Paul counseled slaves in the Corinthian congregation to secure their freedom if the opportunity presented itself. But, you continued, that was in no way a blanket condemnation of the system of enslavement. Instead, you suggested, Paul was merely pointing to the path of common sense and self-preservation. I don’t agree with the entirety of your conclusion here, but fair enough.

Then you pointed to Paul’s language in his letter to the Galatian Christians. I wasn’t sure if you knew that correspondence. We have suspected that Paul’s letters were carefully preserved and that copies were circulated to other congregations – often as collections of letters.

You noted that Paul rendered certain human categories superfluous when compared to our oneness in Christ. “For whoever has been baptized into Christ has donned Christ as clothing,” you quoted. “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free man; there is not ‘male and female,’” you continued, “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”*

You then noted that immediately after this stunning declaration of the Gospel, Paul used an extended metaphor to make his real point. The real point, you observed, was in the previous sentence. “For all [you Galatians] are sons of God by means of ongoing trust in Christ Jesus.”**

You quite correctly observe that in the preceding paragraph, Paul relies on the metaphor of the pedagogue to make his point. The pedagogue in question was certainly imagined to be an enslaved person put in charge of the safety, education, and discipline of the (free) male heir of the household.

Why, you ask, if Paul so disapproved of the institution and practice of slavery, would he then affirm that institution and practice in a theological object lesson. Why, indeed?

You further note that Paul uses another enslavement metaphor and story in the succeeding paragraph – the story of Hagar and Sarah. One of our contemporary scholars, Jennifer Glancy, has pursued similar observations.

Glancy writes of Paul in Galatians, “having incidentally announced that within the Christian community slave and free are not relevant categories, Paul introduces imagery that stresses acknowledged legal and cultural differences between slave and free.”*** It seems you have a scholarly supporter for your argument.

Phil, this strikes me as a modified argument from silence. As a preacher, I have used sermon illustrations from events and realms I might find offensive or have discovered later to be inaccurate. I’m willing to grant Paul the same need for growth.

For example, a favorite old chestnut for preachers is the story about catching monkeys by putting a brightly colored ball in a jar and then tying the jar to a tree. The story is that the monkey reaches in to grasp the ball. The monkey’s fist around the ball is now too large for the mouth of the jar. The monkey refuses to release the ball and is trapped by the monkey’s overweening and now deadly greed.

The story is often used to illustrate the perils of holding possessions too tightly. It’s not a bad point in homiletical terms. You know – “where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also,” etc. But as far as I can tell, the story is a preacher’s fable, passed from one pulpiteer to the next.

I had a colleague who served for years in Madagascar. He scoffed at the story. “Monkeys aren’t that stupid,” he growled, “but preachers often are.”

You might think I digress without end, but bear with me, Phil. I didn’t use the illustration because I approved of or participated in monkey-hunting. It seemed plausible at the time and worked for my purposes. I’ve since learned to avoid such “just so” stories in general in my sermons.

In addition, I’m opposed now to killing and/or eating of any animals – monkeys included. I also recognize the story as another colonizers’ trope that portrays Africans as rudely clever in their uncivilized and somewhat savage setting. I’ve learned a bit and grown a bit. I wouldn’t use the story again.

My point is that Paul’s use of enslavement stories does not entail his approval of the Imperial enslavement system. Do I wish he had used different stories to make his point? Indeed, I do.

Jennifer Glancy describes the problem well. “Paul promises a suspension,” she writes, “of the categories of slave and free, male and female, within the Christian community. His rhetoric, however,” she continues, “insists on the consignment of human persons to places in society that are defined by these very categories.”****

So, Phil, I’m not suggesting that your reading of the Galatians text is somehow “wrong.” I am suggesting that it may not serve as the secure and certain evidence you suppose. I have hopes that perhaps Paul thought better of his rhetorical choices later in his life. In the heat of the Galatian controversy, the blessed Paul may not have been thinking as clearly as he might later have wished.

I also have hopes that perhaps Paul grew and deepened in his understanding of the Gospel and its meaning for how we live as Jesus-followers. One of the reasons I treasure his letter to you is that I believe it is perhaps one of the final letters he wrote before his execution as a martyr.

I’m not suggesting he knew this outcome in detail as he wrote. In fact, I know he asked you to prepare a guest room for him in anticipation of a future visit. I’m sure he hoped that would happen. It seemed, however, that the anticipated visit never took place. I wonder how long you kept that room ready for him after you learned of his untimely death. It would have taken me a long time to recover.

In any event, Paul knew his time was running out, I suspect. So, his words to you have, for me, some of the flavor of final instructions for friends after a lifetime of prayer and reflection. I take this letter as a revelation of Paul’s heart when it comes to you, to Onesimus, and to enslavement. I’d like to think that Paul was less sanguine about enslavement as the years wore on, and clearer about what I see as the inconsistency between slaveholding and following Jesus as Messiah and Lord.

It should not surprise you at this point, Phil, that I don’t agree with your offhand observation. I hope you know my disagreement doesn’t come with a sense of moral superiority or condescending judgment. I live in a time replete with similar assertions – many of which have found their way into our laws and social norms.

Recently, for example, we observed the anniversaries of two conflicting legal decisions. On May 18, we remembered the infamous decision of our highest legal body in the Plessy v. Ferguson case. In that decision the court ruled that Black people had no rights which White people were bound to respect.

That decision ratified a system of racial segregation and separation which gave legal sanction to de facto black enslavement under the color of law. The decision asserted that such a system was not inconsistent with a society that proclaimed “liberty and justice for all” as one of its cardinal virtues.

On May 17, we remembered another legal decision – Brown v. Board of Education. That decision overturned Plessy and opened the possibility that common humanity might result in equal justice under the law for all. That decision led to some great strides in dismantling the covert system of White supremacy in our nation. But I am sad to report that during most of my life, our society has resisted those gains and rolled back the progress at every opportunity.

Next week we remember the murder of George Floyd under the knee of a duly-sworn officer of the law. Perhaps that is a commonplace for you. In theory, it’s not supposed to happen in our system (although in fact it happens somewhere nearly every day). The ideal of oneness in Christ is still a distant dream in our churches, and equal justice under the law for all is an equally distant dream in our society.

Unfortunately, the argument that unjust systems can co-exist with the Gospel has not lost its power to persuade and pacify. I look forward to your reply (I think).

Yours in Christ,

Low

*Galatians 3:27-28, my translation

**Galatians 3:26, my translation

***Slavery in Early Christianity, Kindle Location 675

****Slavery in Early Christianity, Kindle Location, 753.

Letters to Phil #6 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

So, you’d like to hear the various theories about what happened between you and Onesimus? All right. I’ll play along, but at some point, I hope you will tell me what really went on behind the letter we have.

The oldest and most traditional reading of what happened is the “fugitive slave scenario.”  In this reading you own Onesimus as an enslaved person.  Onesimus escapes and takes refuge with Paul. There is some debate about whether Paul is imprisoned in Ephesus or in Rome when he writes to you (I lean toward Ephesus, but I’m in the minority in that regard). Then Paul sends back or allows Onesimus to return to your house, letter in hand.

One variation of the “fugitive slave scenario” is the “intercession scenario.”  In this reading, Onesimus does not intend to escape from enslavement as such.  Instead, he has some difficulty with you, his master.  Onesimus flees to a friend of his master who can serve as a mediator and/or advocate in this situation. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

We have a copy of a letter from Pliny the Younger to one Sabinianus. Pliny was roughly your contemporary and served as a mid-level imperial official in your part of the world. It’s entirely possible that you have heard of him or even had dealings with him. Frankly, I hope not, since he tended to torture first and ask questions later when it came to Christians.

Pliny wrote lots of letters, some to the Emperor and many others to supplicants of various stripes. A freedman whom Sabinianus had formerly enslaved and then released from enslavement had somehow run afoul of his former enslaver and current patron. The unnamed freedman fled to Pliny and asked him to beg Sabinianus for mercy and forgiveness on behalf of and for the sake of the freedman.

The comparisons and contrasts between this letter and the one Paul sent to you are noteworthy as we try to discern what is behind your letter. Pliny is clear that he writes on behalf of the freedman to express remorse and beg for reconciliation. We don’t get that in your letter. Pliny asks Sabinianus – who is likely beholden to Pliny in some way – to pardon the freedman and not to threaten him with punishment. There is no mention of any renewed or deepened relationship along the lines of Paul’s words to you.

So, Pliny’s letter is instructive more for its differences than it is for its similarities with your letter. It may be that Onesimus fled to Paul for protection, intercession, and advocacy. But Paul’s tone and request are quite different from what we find in Pliny’s letter. So, we surmise that the situation was different in significant ways. Perhaps you could enlighten us when you get the chance?

The “intercession scenario” is really only loosely based on the text of Pliny’s letter as we have it. This intercession scenario depends to a large degree on research into Roman law of the time.  The records of that law are theoretical and general and may be of limited value in understanding the actual legal administration of enslaved persons who have fled. 

So, contemporary scholars tend not to put much stock in this variation. That doesn’t mean it’s not accurate or interesting. It’s just that we don’t have much evidence of this practice from your time frame. Our examples don’t seem to convey the same dynamics that we find in Paul’s letter to you.

A second and relatively traditional reading is the “sent slave scenario.”  In this reading you own Onesimus as a slave.  You have sent Onesimus to Paul to comfort and serve him, and perhaps to bring him some money, during his imprisonment in Ephesus (or Rome). In this scenario, Onesimus acts as an extension of you rather than as an independent agent.

A scholar named J. B. Harrill notes that Onesimus may have been sent by the church to protect Paul from the uncertainties of his imprisonment.  This makes Onesimus less of an appendage and more of an agent. In this scenario Paul wishes to retain Onesimus as one of Paul’s co-workers in the Gospel.  This reading does not clarify whether Paul is asking you to free Onesimus from enslavement or merely to “lend” him to Paul. That’s a fairly large difference from our vantage point.

The advantages of this “sent slave” scenario are twofold. In his letter to you, Paul doesn’t condemn Onesimus’ actions, and that absence has to be explained. Nor does Paul offer any apology or remorse on behalf of Onesimus and in his defense. That absence must be explained as well. The sent slave scenario accounts for both of these absences. Since, in this scenario, Onesimus did not “escape” or abscond with your property, there’s nothing for which to apologize.

According to Harrill, Paul’s letter to you contains more similarities to Pliny’s letter and others like it than most scholars would concede. He points, however, to similarities to several pagan letters from a slaveholder’s friend to the slaveholder.  In the letters is often an apology for keeping the enslaved person too long.  Harrill notes some verbal similarities between Paul’s letter and some pagan letters of the time that account for keep another’s slave overlong. 

Harrill expands on this scenario by proposing the “apprenticed slave scenario.”  He notes the similarities between Paul’s letter to you and various ancient contracts to let out a slave as a “journeyman apprentice.”  Harrill argues ”that the letter asks you to let Onesimus be apprenticed to Paul for service in the Gospel…” 

He points to the “partner” and “coworker” language in the letter as evidence for this scenario.  He also notes “that the proposed apprenticeship will turn a ‘useless’ slave (one unskilled in any particular trade) into a ‘useful’ one, both to the master craftsman and to its original owner.”  In this scenario, Onesimus remains a slave—tasked now to Paul for a noble purpose, but still owned by another human being.

A recent, revisionist, reading proposed by Allen Dwight Callahan is the “a brother, not a slave” scenario.  In this reading, Onesimus is a literal brother to you and only metaphorically a slave.  Now, you may find this proposal insulting, if, in fact, you and Onesimus are not brothers “in the blood.” You know better than I that many enslaved people were the products of sex between enslaver and enslaved. That reality was a commonplace if the American slave system, and I can go into the details of that if you’re interested.

That being said, this reading holds that there is some sort of estrangement between the brothers, and Paul is seeking to act as a reconciling mediator between them. I apologize if this makes you uncomfortable for any reason (unless it should make you uncomfortable, and then you won’t be expecting an apology). As they say in my time, I don’t write it — I just report it.

A further development of the revisionist reading is the “both a brother and a slave” scenario.  Again, I repeat my apologies if this is not the case. In this reading, Onesimus may have been sold into enslavement to satisfy a personal or a family debt.  Or Onesimus may be a half-brother to you through an enslaved mother.

Each of these positions has things to commend it. I suspect that elements of each of these proposals have some truth in them. As we read, study, and interpret your letter, we tend to keep all of these in mind. I rely mostly on the first traditional interpretation, in the absence of any other information (Hint, hint; nudge, nudge; wink, wink!).

Now, Phil, you are likely wondering why this all matters so much to us in our time. You may know of another set of letters from one of your contemporaries, Seneca. In his Moral Letters to Lucilius, he addresses enslavement in Letter 47. While he begins by identifying the enslaved as human beings just like the rest of us, he ends up softening the horrors of enslavement and romanticizing the relationships between the slaveholder and the enslaved.

You see, Phil, Paul’s letter to you has often been used to accomplish the same propagandistic purpose. Following our own Civil War, an ideology and theology arose which came to be called the “Lost Cause.” One of the many elements of that mythology was that the relationship between the enslaved and slaveholders was relatively benign and that the formerly enslaved were actually better off in their former condition than as freed persons.

Scenarios based on the notion that Onesimus remained enslaved after you received the letter have been used to support this mythology. Scenarios that depend on a relatively cordial relationship between you and Onesimus prior to your conversions further support this mythology. Scenarios that suggest enslavement was and is compatible with Christian discipleship and community underwrite this mythology. So, you can see that discerning what actually happened makes a great deal of difference in our time and space.

One of our scholars, Stephanie McCarter, has written on this topic, and you might find her comments illuminating.* “What starts in Seneca’s Letter 47 as a recognition of the humanity of slaves quickly gives way to a similarly romanticized view,” she writes, “as Seneca replaces what he considers to be slavery’s less savory aspects with a damaging fiction: that the institution can be redeemed, even turned into a force for good in the life of the enslaved, by the noble Stoic slave owner.”

I know this takes us back to my previous letter and your displeasure with being used as a prop for how good it was for the enslaved to be enslaved. But that sort of nonsense continues to come back in different disguises over and over again. The goal is always to whitewash the ugliness of the past and to sanctify the power dynamics of the present.

Such efforts have never worked – not for Seneca and not for his twenty-first century acolytes. “No matter how many knots Seneca or proponents of the Lost Cause tie themselves into to posit the idea of a noble master,” Stephanie McCarter writes, “neither the Southern gentleman nor the Stoic sage can ever redeem slavery.”

Thus, many of us hope that what really happened was something that moved Christians toward condemning enslavement rather than redeeming it. That information, however, remains with you, my friend. Looking forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours in Christ,

Low

*https://eidolon.pub/senecas-lost-cause-cfcbb5d15d32

Letters to Phil #5 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

I could almost hear you shouting from my study. “What the hell you do you mean – they used my letter to support enslavement! Can’t those people read a simple Greek sentence?” Well, first, they (we) read it (mostly) in English, not Greek. Second, they read what they wanted to hear, not necessarily what was on the page.

Phil, I should have gone into some detail on this. I apologize for just tossing in that throw-away line. You’re certainly entitled to wonder how later Christians could use your experience to justify a practice that you appear to reject. I’ll give you a well-known example of how Paul’s letter to you was used, and the responses that generated among enslaved audiences.

In 1833, an itinerant circuit-rider named Charles Colcock Jones preached on Paul’s letter to you to a congregation of enslaved Black people. He reported that in his sermon he “insisted on fidelity and obedience as Christian virtues in servants.” Jones “condemned the practice of running away,” he continued, “upon the authority of Paul.”

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In response to this message, Jones wrote, “one-half of my audience deliberately walked off with themselves; and those who remained looked anything but satisfied with the preacher or his doctrine.” I wonder if Jones was as understated in his preaching as he was in his reporting. I doubt it.

This incident, Phil, was not an exception. It was a typical Christian sermon delivered by a white clergy person to a Black, enslaved congregation. In fact, such preachers and writers referred to Paul’s letter to you as the “Pauline Mandate”.  This supposed mandate was used to support and underwrite our national laws that required the return of escaped enslaved persons, particularly the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. 

Harboring escaped enslaved persons was a state and federal crime.  Your little letter is referenced specifically in political debates and legal documents of the time as a support for the institution of enslavement. The white preachers read in the text what served their interests and the interests of those white slaveholders who supported the preachers financially.

Many of those preachers were themselves slaveholders. They mined the texts of Christian and Hebrew scriptures for pro-enslavement nuggets. They used those nuggets to undergird their messages. Their messages underwrote the institutions and practices of the enslavement of Black people.

Jones’ listeners evaluated and analyzed the messages from their own locations and perspectives. He notes that of those who remained in the pews, “some solemnly declared that there was no such Epistle in the Bible.” Others in the crowd objected that what Jones declared was not the Gospel. Still others asserted that Jones “preached to please the masters.”

Some suggested that they did not care if they ever heard Jones preach again – a fact Jones apparently found quite surprising.

It was this collision of perspectives, Phil, that drove and continues to drive critical study of Paul’s letter to you. From the vantage of two millennia later, it is not crystal clear (at least to some) what Paul wanted you to do. That ambiguity left a gap in the text that pro-enslavement preachers and theologians have exploited for much of those two millennia.

It certainly doesn’t help that other letters attributed to Paul urge slaves to obey their masters and endure punishment. Other places in our Christian scriptures have similar words that seem to give aid and comfort to enslavers and white supremacists.

So, the burden of proof from Christian scriptures was typically on those who argued that enslavement was and is contrary to the Gospel. If we relied on the literal sense and sheer number of verses, then the case for enslavement seemed strong. Therefore, it was and is necessary to test the texts we have with a critical eye.

You can hear some of that critical perspective in the responses to Jones’ sermon. Half of the listeners voted with their feet. People are still doing that in our time and society. White Christian churches are still having a terrible time getting this “race” business right. People of all backgrounds are weary of this moral foot-dragging for the sake of preserving white supremacy and privilege in the Church and the society. So, they just leave.

The remainder of Jones’ congregation questioned the legitimacy of the text. We continue that debate as we try to read letters directed to the churches at Colossae and Ephesus. We’re uncertain whether those letters come directly from Paul or not. One of the arguments against Pauline authorship of those letters is their affirmations that enslaved persons should remain obedient to slaveholders. The argument is that such a perspective is certainly a degraded interpretation of Paul’s original preaching. Perhaps we can pursue that in the future.

Some of Jones’ listeners viewed the sermon through a particular interpretive lens. It just didn’t sound like Jesus to them. I think that’s right, and we continue to apply that interpretive lens in our own reading. But that puts us on a slippery slope of subjective interpretation which some find untenable. After all, in our time there are nearly as many interpretive “lenses,” nearly as many descriptions of the “real” Jesus as there are interpreters. Of course, that’s not news to you.

Still others analyzed the social position and economic interests of Jones and his sermon. He was beholden to the masters and was a master himself. His livelihood was tied to a particular interpretation and application of the text. This social, cultural, and economic analysis based on interests is a useful tool then and now. But it is sometimes associated with so-called radical politics and discounted for that reason.

I apologize for that digression. I am sure, my friend, that this must all seem like nonsense to you. After all, you know how things turned out. I am quite sure that Paul wanted you to release Onesimus from enslavement, and that you were compelled by the love of Christ to do precisely that.

Of course, dear Phil, you still haven’t told me directly that this is what happened. From our historical vantage, there is room to debate that outcome. That debate continues.

You might think we have more than enough words from blessed Paul to make up our minds. But, as you know, he could be infuriatingly indirect when he chose to be. For example, in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth, he speaks to enslaved persons in that church. I know it’s unlikely that you’ve read Paul’s Corinthian correspondence, so I’ll walk through a bit of it with you.

I failed to mention earlier the stuff about chapters and verses. For greater ease of reading and study, we’ve broken Paul’s letters (and our other Christian and Hebrew scriptures) into “chapters” and “verses.” Yes, even Paul’s letter to you is divided into twenty-five “verses” (too short, I guess, for multiple chapters).

At any rate, in verse twenty-one of chapter seven of the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes a sentence that has fueled centuries of scholarly debate. By the way, we would note that verse as “1 Corinthians 7:21,” just so I don’t confuse you.

This verse might give us some insight—if only translators could agree on what the verse says. “Were you a slave when called?” Paul asks, “Do not be concerned about it,” a translation called the “New Revised Standard Version,” (abbreviated as NRSV) continues. “Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.” What, precisely, does he mean by this statement? It is at least as ambiguous (to us) in the Greek as it is in English.

You certainly can see that it is possible to translate precisely the same words with a quite different meaning. For example, in a translation called the “English Standard Version” (abbreviated ESV) we read the verse this way: “Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) A translation called “The New International Version” (abbreviated NIV) has a similar rendering.

Given the Greek grammar Paul uses, either translation is possible. Is Paul saying that enslaved persons should remain as they are? Or is Paul saying that enslaved persons should take their freedom if they can get it? Commentators have come to opposite conclusions based on the New Testament Greek behind the text.

In the NRSV translation, Paul seems to encourage enslaved persons to remain in their current situation. After all, Paul may be saying, the Lord Jesus is returning soon, so don’t bother with any big changes. Focus instead, he may be saying, on leading others into community with Christ and his church in the limited time left. This interpretation assumes that Paul puts everything into a brief time frame and assumes that the second coming of Christ is imminent.

However, many scholars and commentators these days believe that the alternative translation in, for example, the ESV and the NIV is the correct one. That would mean that Paul encourages enslaved Christians to escape from their enslavement if the opportunity prevents itself (presumably without doing violence or committing a crime).

Regardless of which translation we might believe is correct, it is still advice only to individual enslaved persons. Nowhere in his letters or in any other letters attributed to Paul is there a blanket condemnation of the institution and practice of human enslavement in general. Paul appears to encourage manumission and some forms of escape in individual cases. However, he is not in a position to advocate the overturn of the imperial domination system—at least not in this life.

Phil, that’s a lot of background in answer to a simple and justifiably indignant question. I want to pause to give you a chance to respond. Suffice it to say for now that there’s more in the Christian scriptures to create problems for the enslaved for centuries. I’ll be glad to share more of that with you if you have the interest.

I haven’t yet shared greetings with Lady Apphia and blessed Aristarchus and the other saints who gather in your house. Nor have I extended by prayers and best wishes to our brother, Onesimus. He is “our” brother, isn’t he? (Nudge, nudge)…

Yours in Christ,

Low

Letters to Phil, #4 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

“What is this ‘race’ that you continue to mention?” you asked in your most recent letter. “People receive their identity from their families, their native lands, and their ancestral nations,” you continued. “What does the color of one’s skin have to do with anything? After all,” you noted, “I have at least four different shades of olive-brown skin in my own household, Why,” you repeated, “should that make any difference at all?”

Why, indeed, my friend? Skin tone should make no more difference to us than any other accident of birth. But, in my world, one’s skin color makes all the difference. Thereby hangs a tale that requires some lengthy telling. I’ll do what I can to clear this up. Bear with me, good Phil.

In my time and place, informed and enlightened people know that this thing we call “race” is what our scholars describe as a “social construction.” Race is a made-up classification and set of categories created to serve the economic and political interests of people in power.

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Europeans wanted to justify their oppression and enslavement of Africans, Indigenous people, Asians, and even some other Europeans. I know those labels mean little to you, since Africa, Asia, and Europe are not “nations.” But that’s how we talk about each other now (and some folks, wandering in ignorance, think those places are “nations” in some sense).

Skin color and related physical characteristics were a handy way to label some people as “other” and then “inferior” and even “sub-human.” That’s the real key here. The practice of enslavement and the concept of racial “difference” fit hand-in-glove for the (soon-to-be “white”) European invaders. The idea of race was and is the primary tool of imperial and colonial oppression and exploitation.

But “race” isn’t real.

As soon as I say that I have to qualify my statement. The concept of “race” isn’t rooted in any biological differences among human beings. It isn’t based on any inherent cultural or historical or political inferiority on the part of Black or Brown or Indigenous or Asian people. Nor is “race” founded on any inherent superiority on the part of white people.

“Race” isn’t “real” in any of those senses.

But race is very real as a tool for keeping the powerful in power. This social construction, this imaginary idea, justified huge intercontinental systems of Black enslavement and Indigenous genocide for three hundred years.

The idea of race provoked a massive civil war in my country. The war was between those who committed life and limb to Black enslavement and those who opposed that institution. After that war, race was the basis for a system that kept Black people enslaved, although covertly. It was the rationale for turning about one-third of my country into a one-party, totalitarian state.

Race has been the defining issue in my country for my entire life. Unfortunately, I have been hardly aware of that fact until recently. Race is the reason for state-sanctioned imprisonment and monitoring of millions of Black people, extra-judicial murders of Black people by police on an almost daily basis, and the continuing segregation of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people into the poorest housing, schools, medical care, and jobs available.

So, Phil, “race” is not real. But race is powerful, and even deadly for the people who have been racialized by our system. It is a system that is perverse and demonic. I am ashamed to report that I have been and continue to be a beneficiary of that system because I am regarded as “white.”

You, my friend, know and understand prejudice. We humans tend to regard others with suspicion. The less the other is “like” me, the more likely that suspicion will become disdain. Prejudice is part of the human condition and requires spiritual and emotional maturity if it is to be managed well.

You are familiar also with stereotyping. Our scholars tell us that much of your social understanding is rooted in stereotypes. You and I remember, for example, blessed Nathanael’s words about our Lord – “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

You expect specific characteristics and behavior based on ethnic status or social class status. Greeks are one type, for example, and Scythians are another. Slaves must be tortured into giving testimony, according to Imperial law, because slaves are inveterate and unrepentant liars. Thus, the power of stereotypes.

Ethnic superiority is, I believe, a concept familiar to you as well. The Greeks were certain that their civilization exceeded all others in scholarship, education, sophistication, and nobility. The Romans were sure they were superior to all their imperial conquests. After all, they won, right?

In addition, the Romans brought their laws, their roads, their indoor plumbing (including, alas, lead-lined piped), and their administrative and engineering genius with them. They had reasons to feel and act superior – and to impose that superiority on their supposed “inferiors.”

The only reasonable response was to agree to assimilation – to pay the social price associated with becoming “Roman.” Most folks were quite happy to accommodate to that assimilation because it brought great economic, political, social, and cultural benefits to individuals.

So, Phil, you have lived in and with your own social constructions, I think. I’d be interested in your thoughts about whether I’ve gotten this right or not. It’s true that some of your “constructions” are not nearly so “constructed” as is the idea of whiteness. Being a Greek or a Roman was connected to a place and a history. Being a Carthaginian or a Scythian connected one to a real culture and lineage.

Whiteness doesn’t do that for us. None of your constructions – some of which were used to justify the Roman system of enslavement – have been as effective or as permanent for you as race has been for us.

For example, when Onesimus slipped away from your house, it wasn’t that hard for him to melt into the crowds in Ephesus. Unless you had him branded or dog-collared – did you? I know it’s a bit indelicate to mention, but I think you see my point. Differences in skin color provided such a convenient handle for hanging on to and manipulating Otherness. That’s still the case.

You wondered in your letter how Christians could allow “race” to supersede our sibling relationships in Christ. You shared how this became a spiritual and moral concern for you shortly after your conversion to the faith. You also noted that Paul appealed to this reality quite strongly in his letter to you. He used all that family language about becoming Onesimus’ “father” and hoping that the two of you would be “brothers” in Christ.

You noted that there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, as Paul wrote to the Galatians. Rather, all are one in Christ. Yes, we know that letter very well. No, it wasn’t lost to the Church for a time, as you speculated. If only we had that excuse.

That letter should have kept our system of enslavement from arising in the first place. At the very least, Christian faith and discipleship should have created intolerable tensions for slaveholders who converted. Clearly that happened in your case. Throughout history, that has happened in a few cases. But those cases were exceptions to the indecent, obscene, and unfaithful rule.

You know better than I how exceptional you were – even in merely having such struggles of conscience. Our archaeologists, for example, have recovered a slave collar from a few centuries after your time. The inscription on the collar reads, “I am the slave of Felix, the Archdeacon. Hold me, lest I flee.” Thus, my indelicate inquiry earlier.

Felix, a mid-level church bureaucrat, felt no pangs of conscience regarding the enslavement of other human beings. We don’t know if the slave in question was a Christian, but it’s not unlikely. In fact, most of our ancient theologians provided intellectual, ideological, and administrative support for the ongoing enslavement of humans in the Roman Empire.

Troubling as it may be, it would appear that Christian identity had little impact on the identity of slaveholding.

That record of hypocrisy continues to my present time. A Renaissance pope drafted the papal bulls to undergird and authorize African enslavement by Europeans. The Anglican church declared in the 1600’s that Christian baptism did not affect the “physical condition” of the baptized if you can imagine! That “physical condition” was, of course, enslavement.

Christian clergy taught the Good News of Jesus Christ to enslaved Africans in a truncated form with the hopes that this Good News would make them happy with their enslavement. Clergy preached sermons to keep the slaves docile and obedient. I am sad to report that Paul’s letter to you was often used for precisely that purpose – not to free anyone, but to keep them enslaved!

Hebrew scriptures were interpreted to justify Black “inferiority” and subjugation by white slaveholders. Christian churches became divided by race and continue to be divided in that way to my present time. White Christians continue to support the system of subjugation with overwhelming majorities. “Race” has become that “other gospel” against which Paul warned us in his letter to the Galatians. But we White American Christians have not listened much.

I’m sure, Phil, that I have raised as many questions as I’ve answered. Sorry about that! I’m anxious to hear your thoughts about what I’ve shared and your views on whether we’ve gotten your time “right” or not. Thanks for writing and reading.

Yours in Christ,

Low

Letter #3 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

Thanks so much for clarifying a number of things for me in your last letter. No, it hadn’t occurred to me that Paul wasn’t being deferential toward you but rather gentle with you.

I certainly understand that the negative relationship between slaveholding and Christian discipleship didn’t become clear to you in a single flash of insight. It’s obvious, now that you’ve opened my eyes, that Paul was meeting you where you were at the time. And he was encouraging you to take steps that would bring you to an entirely different world of understanding.

Phil, that’s been my experience in reading and studying Paul’s letter to you. As you know, I first came to this conversation for purely pragmatic reasons. I knew, from previous experience and study, that I didn’t know much about the institution of slaveholding in the Roman system. My study soon brought me to the idea of enslavement as “social death.”

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A scholar named Orlando Patterson asserted that enslaved persons were regarded as having no life in themselves. Identity and existence, Patterson argued, were only rooted in the person of the slaveholder and not in the body of the slave. Does that fit with your prior experience and understanding?

As the Lord orders our lives for the good, I’ve been engaged in this study during turbulent times in our culture. In the American system, as I’ve mentioned, enslavement was racialized and imposed predominantly on Black people from Africa. I know you don’t have the same social constructions in “your” system, and that makes some difference. But comparing and contrasting the American and Roman systems is helpful to me in this study. So, I began to read much more about the American system.

I learned a great deal of history that had been hidden from my eyes and awareness. There was a great deal of social and political theory that was new to me as well. My point is that as I learned more, I began to see my present and my past with new eyes.

This hasn’t happened all at once, of course. I know Paul’s reported experience of conversion was a move from blindness to sight. “Something like scales fell from his eyes,” Luke reports in his account of Paul’s transformation. It hasn’t been like that for me. My impression now is it hasn’t been like that for you either.

And yet, once we know something, it’s very hard to “un-know” it. Once we see something, we perhaps wonder how we ever missed it before. Let me give you an example.

In the American system, social death was attached specifically to Black skin. So, it’s been difficult, even after the end of enslavement, for white people to treat Black people as if they have an independent existence.

I was watching an advertisement related to home ownership the other day. I know you understand what I mean because you have similar public promotions at the theater and the stadium. This particular advertisement featured people of many races and ethnicities. It was intended to promote the idea that home ownership could be enjoyed by all. And yet, in a piece clearly intended to include all sorts of people, not a single Black man was included.

My point is not to critique the advertisement, although I think it was an unfortunate exclusion. My point is that until quite recently I wouldn’t have even noticed this glaring omission. I wouldn’t have bothered to look. The person most fully and intentionally excluded from our system of home ownership — the Black man — was easily overlooked in a presentation designed and intended to showcase inclusion. Again, I don’t think it was intended. But I am distressed by how easily that exclusion continues to happen.

Yes, I can see that sort of exclusion everywhere — now. But the most painful aspect of seeing with new eyes is looking at myself and my past attitudes and actions. Years ago, I worked for our larger Church as a liaison with Black churches in a geographic area.

I know the idea that Christians would segregate by skin tone is both odd and offensive to you. But it has been and continues to be the norm for American Christians. More on that in another letter, perhaps.

At any rate, when I think back now to my actions and decisions in that relationship, I feel regret and shame. I can’t imagine, in hindsight, anyone less qualified or experienced to be in that role. I performed as a white savior in an “underprivileged” Black community. I didn’t listen to the wisdom, insight, and counsel of Black pastors who knew far more and far better than I.

I was involved in projects designed to keep white churches in business and that treated Black people as means to white ends. In our current language, I was an exploitive colonizer who expected appreciation and praise for my efforts. And, to my embarrassment now, that’s precisely what I received.

No, I’m not being too hard on myself or my white colleagues. It’s so easy to see it all now in hindsight. Someone might suggest (and some have) that I did the best I could with what I knew at the time. But that’s not true either.

If I had wanted to actually learn something, I could have immersed myself in antiracism literature for years. I was surrounded by people willing to gently educate and form me if I’d shown even the least inclination. I was in a position to bring about growth in awareness and action among the people I represented. I did none of that. I assumed I knew enough.

I see now that I was not merely blind, but willfully blind at that. The miracle is that my Black colleagues not only tolerated my destructive arrogance and assertive ignorance. They loved me in spite of all that.

Phil, I can’t help but wonder if you look back in similar ways? Do you remember your pagan life and shudder with shame?

You have far more reason than I to plead a more innocent variety of ignorance. I grant you that, certainly. Your greatest philosophers were certain that the enslaved were somehow naturally suited to and destined for their condition. Your entire society — like ours — was built on the institution of enslavement and the caste ideology that undergirded it. “Normal” people knew that slaveholders were doing only what they were “required” to do.

Yet, you and I know the verdict on enslavement was not unanimous in your time and space. Dio Chrysostom demonstrated that every enslaved person has a free ancestor somewhere in the past. So, every enslaved person lived at the end of a chain that began with the theft of a free human body.

I had the words of Dr. King and Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer in my head beginning in young adulthood. I could have read James Baldwin and Angela Davis and James Cone if I wanted to. But I didn’t.

I know those names don’t mean anything to you. But I had more than enough philosophers and poets and playwrights and historians and theologians who could have instructed me if I had wanted to listen and to see. But I didn’t.

Now, I may know and see more than I did in the past. I’m grateful for that, and you have had no small part in that growth in awareness. But I am bothered even more now by what I still don’t know — and what I don’t know that I don’t know. This learning and growing in faith, hope, and love is a lifelong process and task. Nowhere is that more true than in efforts to live more often as an antiracist.

Do you ever worry about what else you have to learn and what you might be missing?

So, Phil, Paul’s letter to you arrived in the middle of that process of awakening, I believe. He was giving you new eyes and inviting you to see again for the first time. I think, in some small way, I understand.

Until next time.

Yours in Christ,

“Low”